The Mystery of the Dastardly Dam Dynamiter

A few months ago, I was chatting with a local octogenarian and he told me an incredible story!  When he was a small child, his family lived in Magnolia and he says the old timers used to talk about a lake in Magnolia that was formed by damming the Minnehaha river.  He recalls that they talked about a lake large enough to put boats into and pretty enough to be an attraction.

It seems it must have been a private lake because he said that that the demise of the lake came when the dam was dynamited and destroyed by some ornery fellow with a grudge against the landowner.

I thought that story was only vaguely interesting until he said that the ruined dam is still down there in the woods somewhere and he had actually seen it as a child.  That piqued my interest!  It makes me feel like Indiana Jones to find and explore “lost civilizations,” even when they are only 50 or 100 years lost.

It looked like it would be a swampy, snakey slog through yards of briars no matter my approach… My first thought was to jump in the river and wade down to Prewett street looking for signs of the old dam.

He told me when he was around 10 years old he was out in the woods near the Minnehaha hunting muscadines when he turned around and saw the long, straight lines of the concrete dam in the middle of the woods.

He couldn’t remember exact details about the location in the woods and all the roads and landmarks have changed in the ensuing 70 years – but he thought it must have been somewhere near the present-day South Pike High School.  He said he did remember when he last saw it, that the ruined dam lay southwest of the river.

I started looking at topo maps for places that you could put a dam on the Minnehaha and create a good-sized lake and I narrowed it down to 2 or 3 locations.  Then my source told me that he thought it must have been near what is now Prewitt Street.

I asked around with my local history contacts until I happened to run across a fellow that pointed me in the right direction.  It’s right down thataway.” He said, pointing toward the swampy tract of woods between Prewett Street, Regan Road, and Schilling Drive.

The creek runs through those low-lying woods from the Hwy 48 culvert at the High School to the bridge on Prewett Street.  For years I have driven around the edges this tract of woods and wondered what sort of adventure lay inside that densely-tangled swamp.

I dug out my maps and started looking for good access points into that patch of woods, but was still stuck.  There are some houses scattered around the north, west, and south sides of that tract, and the Prewett street bridge to the east but I didn’t know any of the landowners and all of the road frontages looked like it would be a swampy, snakey slog through yards of briars no matter my approach.

My first thought was to jump in the river at Hwy 48 and wade down to Prewett street looking for signs of the old dam.  But before I committed to that plan of attack I had one more technological solution that I thought might yield some more definite info.

I called up a buddy of mine from college who used to be a GIS expert in the Forestry Department.  I’d recalled that they had high-tech satellite imaging capability as well as post-processing computer capabilities bordering on magic.  They were frequently asked to look for specific structures or items underneath tree canopies.

I asked him to use his satellites and computers to scan along the creek from Hwy 48 to Prewett looking under the trees for any sign of large concrete structures but he was unable to find any traces of concrete in that area of the creek. His best suggestion was to jump in the creek at the highway and wade down to Prewett looking for concrete or large ridges that might have been an earthen berm.

I really wanted to find that dam and I had just about worked myself up to the point that I was ready to tromp down that creekbed when I mentioned it to my mother-in-law.

She is a retired teacher and local history and genealogy buff and she immediately said, “Well, that’s right in the backyard of one of my students!  I bet they’d walk with you down there.”

It didn’t take long before she hooked us up.  He didn’t know anything about any old dam at the bottom of his place but he said he’d be glad to show me around and tromp through the woods with me.

We met at the crack of dawn one Saturday at his family home on Regan road just across from the Magnolia Cemetery.  He was raring to go and we ducked into the woods along a deer trail.

To my surprise, the tract was not as dense and tangled as it appeared from the road.  Once we pressed through the edge effect near the road, the woods opened up into a shady canopy with a leaf-littered ground.

We walked along several gravelly creek beds – tributaries of the Minnehaha.  The area appears to flood regularly but then drain along these multiple routes into the main creek bed near Prewett Street.

As we were following these creek beds we would see occasional signs of long-forgotten development.  A stray brick here, a warped and unidentifiable piece of metal there.  Then all of a sudden we came upon a large chunk of broken concrete in the bottom of a little waterfall in a trickling creekbed.

We didn’t get much farther along that creekbed before we were stopped by an impenetrable jungle of muscadine vines, but we could see where the canopy was thinning out to the east at what must be Prewett Street and the trickle in the bottom of this creekbed led away under the vines toward what must have been the Minnehaha.

We backtracked to Regan road and walked eastward until we found another little break in the vegetation.  This time we bypassed the muscadine tangle and worked our way progressively northward and eastward as we gradually lost elevation until I pointed to a ridge and said, “The river must be just on the other side of that ridge.”

We ducked between vines and branches as we climbed the ridge to look down on the Minnehaha , flowing deep and fast from the rains of the last few days.  We scanned left and right along the ridge but didn’t see any sign of an old dam.  Finally, we decided to give up at this location and drive around to the Highway 48 side of the woods and search there. But when we turned around there it was – we were standing right on top of the old dam!

If I had searched for the dam by wading southward from Highway 48, I doubt I could have even seen the exposed concrete from the creek bed – the area has filled in from so many years of leaf litter and erosion.

Just as the old-timer had remembered, the dam lay southwest of the riverbed, its straight lines stretching eastward along the top of the ridge.  One side of the dam slopes southward as the other side falls straight off, so that the buried bottom of the dam is wider than the top.  Only a foot or so of the dam is still exposed – old, pebbly, coarse concrete covered with a thick layer of bright green moss.

The dam is old enough that it has huge trees, perhaps 80-100 year-old oaks, growing through it, breaking and displacing parts of it.

Seeing the dam was gratifying but it brings up other questions – like how big was the lake behind it and what parts of Magnolia were once inundated by it?  Who was the landowner and who was the dastardly dam dynamiter and what was their story?

Next time you are driving southward toward the cemetery over the Prewett Street bridge, you might cast a quick glance to the right into the seemingly impenetrable tangle of muscadine vines and smilax briars and know that just a few yards westward through that jungle lie remnants of a bygone era – a lost and nearly forgotten Magnolia.

Or you might find someone that grew up in pre-war Magnolia – there are still a few around – and ask them for a story from their pre-teen years.  They’ll likely have some doozies.  And when they tell you those stories, come tell me!

Excerpted from a story that first appeared

in the 2018 Adventure Magazine of the Enterprise-Journal

Categories: Adventure, Hiking

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